Immigration realities

Posted: Jan 13, 2004 12:00 AM

George W. Bush, having proposed massive reform of immigration policy, will certainly catch it in the neck from both sides in this long-running debate -- the too-muchers and the not-enoughers.

The plan that Bush introduced last week calls for renewable three-year visas allowing foreign-born workers to take jobs unfilled by Americans. Those workers here now would have to register and pay a fee. An employer could bring in additional workers by certifying the need. Temporary workers seeking citizenship would enjoy no special treatment. Most, when their jobs end, would be expected to go home.

The Bush plan, in short, has something to offend almost everyone. Conservatives who see the plan as amnesty in drag are unhappy. Democrats whose favorite theme is the disappearance of American jobs are unhappy. The Democratic presidential candidates, unhappy about everything under the sun, are unhappiest of all. Business was reasonably happy, as was Mexico's Vicente Fox, when Bush laid the plan before him at the Summit of the Americas. But that doesn't push the plan through to fulfillment.

Why so much perplexity? In large measure, it is because most of us don't like dealing with bothersome and intractable realities.

Immigration is the thorniest of realities. On the one hand, a nation has the right to say who comes in and who doesn't. On the other hand, cars, airplanes, TV, movies, free trade and commercial interdependency have drawn the world together in a way wondrous to see. You could fairly say that society is becoming global: not exclusively this, that or the other, but a mishmash. All this is happening regardless of our druthers.

The Arabs, for instance, may not like Americans or the American way of life, but for various reasons, including the need to sell us oil, they can't do without us. Nor can we exactly look the other way when Arabs of a particular stripe attack the American homeland, murdering Americans.

Likewise, our economy -- what with the current low level of baby-boomer procreation -- demands more services than the native born can supply. You say we don't truly need all those motel rooms that non-American workers clean? Well, maybe not. But we say we do by staying in those rooms. Likewise, if it weren't for all those homeowners too busy, or too lazy, to mow their own lawns, there would be no Hispanic yard crews. But there are.

And then, there are immigrants like the parents of Colin Powell, not to mention the parents of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who happens to command our troops in Iraq just now, under the overall command of Gen. John Abizaid, an Arab American. It is a curious fact that so many on the front lines defending America -- sometimes dying for her -- have names other than Jones and Smith.

We live every day with realities like these. It is no use trying to blink them away. A better program is to start figuring out what can be done. That is where the real merriment commences. Political programs begin with politicians; this means any incoming program will draw anti-aircraft fire on the basis of its -- inevitably -- political content.

So with the Bush program, most of all in a presidential year. "Why, the so-and-so, prostituting himself for the sake of ... " -- I can hear it now. So can you. We shouldn't let that deter us. We need to work on the immigration reality sooner or later. "Sooner" lets us lay down important markers right now, such as the unassailable need for total assimilation of newcomers into a democratic, English-speaking culture, such as recognition of job-market holes that the foreign born alone can plug.

We don't really know how this conversation, once begun, is going to end up. But, conservatives or liberals, we should be glad the president has invited us to it. The only realities that ruin a man, a woman or a nation are the kind that go forever ignored.